Behavioral Healthcare is Healthcare
By: Nikki Ford, LCSW/LICSW
October 23, 2019
Each year at least 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 youth in the U.S. experience a diagnosable mental health condition. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people age 10-34. (1) The prevalence is even higher when including substance abuse. Each year, over 20 million adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, and over 70,000 people per year die by drug overdose. (2, 3)
Many of you have heard the story about the painfully discouraging college professor who is addressing first-semester freshmen, “one in three of you will fail this course. Look left. Look right. If it isn’t one of them, it’s you.” This adage is clearly exaggerated. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that every single person reading this blog is touched by mental illness and substance abuse. At least one in four of us will experience a diagnosable behavioral health condition during our lifetime. Frankly, due to the stigma still surrounding behavioral health, that statistic is likely a significant underestimate. People don’t face these challenges in a vacuum; loved ones, friends, and communities feel the ripple effect as well. And sadly, less than 45% of people get help. That percentage dwindles even further among minority groups, especially within Black and Hispanic communities. (4)
In a 2015 interview for Glamour, actress Kerry Washington discussed her decision to see a therapist. Here is her take, and I think it’s a good one:
“I say that publicly because I think it’s really important to take the stigma away from mental health… My brain and my heart are really important to me. I don’t know why I wouldn’t seek help to have those things be as healthy as my teeth. I go to the dentist. So why wouldn’t I go…?”(5)
The reality is that behavioral health is a fundamental element of the whole health of a person. A person’s mental health not only affects life areas such as educational achievement, employment, and relationships but it also very directly impacts physical health. People with severe mental health conditions typically live 10-20 years less than the general population. And people with disabilities are even more likely to have behavioral health and chronic medical conditions that impact not only length of life, but the quality of life.
Behavioral health is health, and behavioral healthcare is healthcare. Acknowledging that reality allows us to recognize symptoms earlier and, in turn, better help people who are struggling. Sometimes, we can even prevent the development of behavioral health conditions: such as depression, anxiety, or alcohol abuse. When people do experience chronic behavioral health conditions, early diagnosis and treatment leads to better management of those illnesses. A common analogy in the field is that living with chronic mental health or substance use disorders is somewhat analogous to living with a chronic medical condition like diabetes. It’s no secret that illnesses can be much better managed through active collaboration and planning between the person and the care team. That approach works for diabetes, hypertension, the flu, bipolar disorder…I could go on, but the point is, whether through medication, therapy, or a combination: help helps. People can and do get better every single day.
Behavioral healthcare is an integral area of primary care, much like a pediatrician, internist, dentist, or optometrist. Unfortunately, as a society, we have failed to prioritize this essential component of health and wellbeing adequately. However, that shortcoming is changing. You may notice that your primary care doctor and perhaps even your dentist now ask questions about mental health and substance abuse symptoms. Your primary care provider’s office might even include a therapist within the practice. These models are becoming increasingly common, and they work.
At Benchmark, we have served roughly 75,000 people through our Behavioral Health Mobile Crisis Response Services. About half of the people served through this program have no prior history of behavioral health treatment. We are passionate about our work in crisis services; however, we’d much rather people know that they don’t have to struggle until that call to 911 or the crisis line. Stigma, lack of awareness, lack of resources, and lack of support should never be barriers to a person’s health and wellbeing. And a person’s mental, emotional, and behavioral health is every bit as real and vital as, for instance, metabolic or heart health.
If you or someone you know needs help, please remember that it is out there. The resources below are great places to start, and of course, in the event of an emergency, please dial 911 immediately.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Call/Video Relay: 1-800-273-8255
Website: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org (online chat available)
Crisis Text Line:
SAMHSA National Helpline:
Call: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Veterans Crisis Line:
Call: 1-800-273-8255 – Press 1
Online Chat: www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat
Active Duty: www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net
- “NAMI,” NAMI, 2019, https://nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers.
- “Mental Illness,” National Institute of Mental Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019), https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154788.
- Trends in Substance Use Disorders Among Adults Aged 18 or Older, 2019, https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2790/ShortReport-2790.html.
- “Drug Overdose Deaths | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html.
- Cindi Leive, “Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kerry Washington: The Important Cause Bringing Three Powerhouse Women Together,” Glamour (Glamour, April 7, 2015), https://glamour.com/story/michelle-obama-sarah-jessica-parker-kerry-washington-glamour-cover-may-2015/amp.
Nikki Ford is the Director of Development Strategies for Benchmark Human Services (www.BenchmarkHS.com). She has worked in behavioral health for nearly two decades, including as the director of a large scale mobile crisis response program. Ford holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from The University of Georgia. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.